First batches of Iowa State grown and produced wine a success

Three bottles of Iowa State University-produced wine
Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute staff produced and bottled its first batches of La Crescent, Marquette and Rosé wines this past spring.

AMES, Iowa – The Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University has been instrumental in advancing the quality of wine produced across Iowa and surrounding states. A newly renovated space has allowed the program to produce three different wines and will enable them to continue their work supporting the wine industry.

This past spring, the MGWII staff produced and bottled its first batches of wine at the Iowa State University Winery, using grapes grown at the ISU Horticulture Research Station, north of Ames. From a total of 3.5 tons of Marquette and La Crescent grapes harvested in the fall of 2021, 828 bottles of La Crescent, 444 bottles of Marquette and 420 bottles of Rosé wine were produced.

The vines on which the grapes were grown were planted at the Horticulture Research Station in 2011. At the time, the La Crescent and Marquette grapes were up-and-coming cold-hardy cultivars developed by the University of Minnesota, making them an ideal choice for Iowa’s climate, said Jennie Savits, enology program specialist.

The La Crescent grape is ideal for producing aromatic white wines – very fruity and floral with crisp acidity, which pairs nicely with food. The Marquette grape produces light- to medium-body red wines with dark berry fruits, cherries and spice. It can also be used to make Rosé and fortified style wines.

Savits said the space in the Food Sciences Building used to make the wine was renovated in 2019. The footprint of the room is compact, however it houses winemaking equipment similar to what can be found in many wineries across the state. Ruth MacDonald, MGWII interim director, facilitated the construction by working with colleagues in the Center for Crops Utilization Research when an opportunity arose to repurpose space in the center’s pilot plants.

“We had to be intentional in how to successfully process the wine in the small space,” Savits said. “It gave us a lot of perspective to help us do a better job of helping wineries who come to us for advice or assistance in making their own wines.”

The MGWII staff were assisted in the wine making process by their undergraduate student assistant, Andrew Gude, who graduated in May with a degree in microbiology. He worked in the lab and analyzed the wines being produced.

With a goal of entering into a career in brewery quality assurance, Gude thought gaining experience in wine quality with MGWII would be an added benefit. The experience led to a shift in his career goal, and he accepted a position following graduation as an assistant winemaker at an Iowa winery.

MacDonald is working with Iowa State to develop a plan for where the Iowa State-produced wine will be available for purchase. Given the small size of the production, MGWII wine will be primarily available within campus venues, such as ISU Dining, the ISU Book Store or at the ISU Alumni Center, and not in the retail market. They hope the project’s success will advance the wine industry in Iowa and create a buzz around cold-hardy grapes and wines produced from them.

“It’s really awesome to showcase what we’re able to produce with specialty crops in Iowa and help bring value-added ag products to people’s tables,” Savits said.

Looking ahead, the MGWII staff plan to produce another batch of the same three wines, taking what they learned and improving upon the process.

“I’m really proud of the wine and our team,” Savits said. “There were some challenges along the way, but those challenges offered opportunities to grow.”

The Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at Iowa State University is the first of its kind in Iowa. Established in 2006, the program serves to provide resources, conduct research and connect grape growers and winemakers to valuable information about enology and viticulture in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.

Jennie Savits and Maureen Moroney scooping up grapes with large shovels
Jennie Savits, left, and Maureen Moroney press Marquette grapes to be made into wine in the Iowa State University Winery, located inside the Food Sciences Building on campus.